Saturday, November 30, 2013

Upright and Assertive

I never do this, but there: I just did it.  Did what?  Begin a sentence, a paragraph even, heck my whole column, with the word I.  Always conscious of the effects words have, I have been wary of this word for as long as I can remember.  English teachers and writing instructors taught me that starting with the first-person singular, the “perpendicular pronoun,” is the worst and weakest way to write, not only in a paper or article, but even in a personal letter.  Among other deleterious effects, it repels the intended audience with its announcement of self-assertion.
Lately this little word with a big impact has come to my attention in the context of the Holy Mass.  When we are in this perfect act of worship, which both shapes and expresses our faith, how often does the first-person singular pronoun cross our lips, and how?  I hope you will find it fruitful grounds for examination as we enter into Advent, the season these columns reflect on the Sacred Liturgy.
Two major cases leap to mind:  one is in the Penitential Rite at the very beginning of Mass, when we all say together, I confess to Almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned  The other is the Creed, the profession of faith, in the restored translation:  I believe in one God, the Father Almighty…. I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ… I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord the Giver of Life… I believe in one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church… One is a confession of sin, the other a confession of faith.  In neither case can such confession be made in someone else’s behalf, but must be offered by the soul who owns, or takes responsibility for, what is confessed.
These two confessions express the ground on which we stand when we present ourselves to the Lord.  We identify ourselves personally and individually to be sinners in need of mercy, and believers in the God who has mercifully revealed His salvation.  In these, no one else can speak for us, nor can we speak for anyone else.  Both require us to affix our I to what follows.  
More frequent in the Mass, and more comforting, are the first-person pronouns that are plural, most notably, Our Father… but also the exhortations addressed to the assembly: Let us pray, let us acknowledge our sins; let us offer, etc.; and the prayers themselves, addressed to God: We pray, we beseech you, we offer you, we ask you, grant us, help us, have mercy on us, grant us peace.  By our worship and prayer, and most fundamentally by our Baptism, we are bound into a living body, a corporate identity that is the People of God.  In this identity, there is no benefit to individual self-assertion.
Sins we own and faith we profess individually; but forgiveness and grace we receive corporately, as members of one Body, the Communion.
As if to bring spiritual depth to my grammatical obsessions, our Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, once offered these words: Faith is a liberation of my I from its preoccupation with self, a liberation that sets me free to respond to the Father, to speak the Yes of love that sets me free to say Yes to being… Faith is breaking out of the isolation that is the malady of my I.  The act of faith is… a breaking open of the door of my subjectivity.
This exhortation marks our task for Advent, as we prepare for the coming of our Savior.  How much more does it mark the fundamental preparation that makes possible our participation in the Holy Eucharist, which is nothing other than the coming in our day of this same Savior!  We will examine more how pronouns can be a problem for participants next week.  Meanwhile, keep your eyes open for I’s. 

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Look up!

This was the week we had been waiting for, when our front lawn becomes the most beautiful spot in Silver Spring.  Wow, are those trees beautiful!  I received a number of compliments on them, which is sort of awkward, since I didn’t do anything to make them that way.  People feel the need to acknowledge them, I guess, but what say we just give thanks to God?
We could also thank Bishop (then-Msgr.) David Foley, our second pastor here, and whoever was working with him – I think maybe Glenn Hilliard and friends? – back in the late seventies when they planted those trees.  I never cease to marvel that there was a group of parishioners who vehemently opposed the plantings, insisting that they would ruin the beauty of the front lawn!  I treasure that episode in my heart as a perfect example of parish dynamics, where there will always be a vocal group who suspects the worst and rejects any change.
The splendor of those trees this week has provided a suitably royal garment for the preparation for this weekend’s Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.  This ends our liturgical year, and with it our procession through the Gospel of Saint Luke.  With Advent next week, we begin again with Year A, and Saint Matthew. 
Let me be among the first to warn you that Thanksgiving, which comes this week, is more insidious than usual this year.  This is the latest Thanksgiving can ever be, which means next weekend is the First Sunday of Advent, and the Monday everybody comes back to school is December second, at which point Christmas Eve will be three weeks from tomorrow.  Don’t everybody panic all at once then, okay?
But before we get into that madness, or any other holiday-based frenzy, even a feeding frenzy, let me invite you to come on Thanksgiving proper, this Thursday, to our Mass that morning at 10:00.  While Thanksgiving is not a liturgical holy day, it is a civic holiday dedicated to giving thanks to God, and we as Catholics have a way of doing that better than any other: the holy Eucharist, which is the Great Thanksgiving. 
That Mass is always a particular delight, since it is late enough in the day that nobody has to rush to get there, and at a time when nobody has anywhere to rush off to afterward.  This morning of waiting (for food or family or football or whatever) is a little island of calm, and a delightful opportunity to pray.  When better to unite in grateful prayer than right on the cusp of the changing of all the seasons, meteorological, social and liturgical? 
Your presence here might make it easier for someone else to prepare your dinner for you (I will not speculate on the division of labor there), but will certainly put you in delightful company here. It will be clear why a parish is often likened to a family.
Speaking of family, in your charity, I ask especially your prayers for our new music director, Rob Barbarino, whose mother Cheryl died suddenly this week. Please pray for the happy repose of her soul, and for Rob and his family. 
It is wonderful to wait for the beauties of nature to reveal themselves in their seasons, but there is greater wonder in store for us who wait upon the Lord.  As the last of those red leaves falls, we look together for the coming of the King whose regal splendor passes, and He promises to come in silence and in smallness.  We lift our eyes in hope once more, and remind ourselves for whom it is we are waiting.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Brightness of the Father's Glory

Even being sick has its bright side.  Laid low by some grim infection the past few days, I have been offering Mass privately.  My two hero-helpers, Fathers McDonell and McCabe, have been celebrating the morning Masses, allowing me to lie in bed and groan.  I then get to say Mass alone, in the chapel, later – when I am more able to focus, and avoid infecting anyone.
So I have been catching up on intentions – individuals or groups for whom I want to bring to bear the full and awesome power of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  Normally, that intention belongs to the person for whom it was requested and scheduled at our parish office.  That’s what you’re really getting when you stop by “for a Mass card;” the card is only a token. 
I offered one Mass for just the priests on my All Souls list.  Lately conversations, events, and circumstances have conspired to bring a lot of them to mind.  I wanted to give them something as a group, since I cannot even distinguish among them which are my heroes, and which are my friends.
Like Cardinal Hickey, who accepted me into seminary, ordained me a priest, and knew and loved the Mass and the Priesthood with an intimacy and intensity that schooled me to my very soul.  Or Msgr. Bernard Gerhardt, who left school to be a waist gunner in a B-17, then went back to his original plan of seminary when the war ended.  He became a canon lawyer, and worked quietly at the Tribunal for more than four decades, saying the earliest Mass at the Cathedral every morning.  Or Msgr. W. Louis Quinn, the longtime rector of Saint Matthew’s, who was ordained just before the end of World War II, and said Mass, heard confessions, and played golf (better than most!) until just before he died sixty-five years later.  Or Msgr. William Awalt, longtime pastor of Saint Ann Church on Tenley Circle, with whom I completed my first seminarian parish assignment.  I don’t know if I admired more his intellect, his sense of humor, or his simple persistence. 
Like Father Derek Goerg; I met him when he was a seminarian, served his ordination, and liked him enough to approach him for encouragement when I was applying for the seminary.  He was so good to me.  Healthy when I left for seminary in Rome, he died of pancreatic cancer before my first trip home, just shy of his fourth anniversary of ordination.
Like Father Paschal Ferlisi, OSB; a Benedictine monk living in the rectory of my Alabama parish; it kept him close to the medical center he needed for his catastrophic kidney failure.  When the transplant failed, he lost one hand and both legs.  I would visit with him when I was home from seminary, and he loved to talk about the liturgy with me.  After I was ordained deacon I assisted him at Mass, and he insisted that we use incense.  He could only poke the thurible in the direction of the chalice with his prosthetic hand, since the good one was holding his cane.  But oh, how he shone with delight as I took it and did all the rest.  He died about four months after concelebrating my Mass of Thanksgiving after priestly ordination. 
Like Fr. Scott Buchanan, my seminary classmate who was killed in a car crash three years after ordination.  Or young Fr. Michael, who honored me to preach his first Mass, but just a few years later lost his struggle with savage depression and killed himself. 
So I offered a Requiem Mass for these priests, and others who have helped me, been examples to me, or just been my friends.  To roll their images before my mind’s eye as I recollect their names during the Eucharistic prayer is a sweet joy, and a gift.  I am privileged to pray for these priests as a priest, offering for them the same Mass they lived for and loved.  For in Christ’s saving mercy, even grief has its bright side.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Mind the gap!

It is so easy to think everything will always be just the same as it is now, as it seems always to have been.   In order to function normally, we must assume this, lest we be paralyzed by infinite variables and fear.  So when something does change, we can be shocked and even shaken.
You will notice a big change here this week:  the large old maple tree outside the school entrance had to be cut down.  I called the tree man because of a dead limb hanging over the walkway, the same fellow who had done some “safety pruning” on it two years ago.  Even then, I told him, I knew it was nearing the end; but he said a little trim was all that was necessary at that time.  This time, alas, it wasn’t only dead branches, but fungus on the roots, rot and splitting in the trunk.  It had to come down, and because of its location by the school, the sooner the better.
It was likely here from the beginning of the parish. We have an old aerial photo taken just before the church was built in 1958, and there stands that maple, full-grown and proud.  It was tough to see it go. 
After the busy weekend of November 1 – 2 – 3, I joked that it was like the film Groundhog Day; every morning, I woke up, and it was Sunday again!  But the three holy days were in fact quite different one from another; each beautiful, but each filled by my favorite and most demanding activity, parish Masses. 
On Saturday, we celebrated our annual Mass for the repose of the souls who were buried from our parish over the past year.  The choir, under our new music director Rob Barbarino, did a marvelous job with Gabriel Fauré’s rich, evocative setting of the Requiem Mass.  At our invitation, a number of the families of the deceased came, some not having been here since the funeral.  It was a beautiful, powerful experience of the life-giving prayer of the Church, and our Christian hope in the face of death.
During the Mass at the intercessions, as I read aloud the names of all those deceased, I was deeply moved.  So many of them I knew well, maybe even for years and years.  Some I hardly knew, but grew acquainted with them through their grieving families.  Each name called to mind a life, its love, and the gap left behind at its passing.
As you pass today, look to where that large maple stood even as recently as last week, where now there is only a gap.   Realize that every one of us, whether monumental or miniscule, and every one whom we love, will similarly be felled by the scythe of time and mortality.  But know also that the love Who touches us here, under the forms of bread and wine, water and oil, with words of admonition and of mercy, nurtures us into life that will never pass away.
Even at Saint Bernadette, things change.  No two days are the same; no Mass or Baptism ever a re-run.  It is a true and joy-giving privilege for me to be Pastor here, to preside over the sanctifying events of lives and lifetimes.  It is precisely because things change that the steady persistence of God’s good grace is such a gift to have and to share.  Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever.
Monsignor Smith